Chiwetel Ejiofor: 10 essential performances

From Children of Men to 12 Years a Slave, we celebrate the meteoric rise of the London-born star and BAFTA winner Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Sarah Jilani

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Chiwetelu Umeadi “Chiwetel” Ejiofor was born in east London to Nigerian parents in 1977. From London’s Dulwich College, Chiwetel went on to perform with the National Youth Theatre and attended the prestigious drama school LAMDA.

Starting out as a stage actor, his first film role came in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad (1997). Taking on diverse lead and supporting roles in many projects since, he proved himself one of the most versatile black British actors of his generation and was appointed an OBE in the 2008 birthday honours. From his award-winning stage portrayal of Othello (2007) to his global star turn in 12 Years a Slave, we take a look at 10 fantastic performances Ejiofor has given to date.

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Dirty Pretty Things (2002)

Half love, half horror story, Stephen Frears’ tense film about the underbelly of London gives Ejiofor a role in which he shines with his mature and skilful rendition of Okwe, an undocumented Nigerian migrant who works in London as a night porter at a hotel – a place which, as he discovers one fateful night, holds a dark secret. Ejiofor waited three years to confirm the role with Frears, and came to the production fresh out of theatre roles in Romeo and Juliet at the National and Blue/Orange in the West End. Dirty Pretty Things cemented his star potential on the silver screen: his rendering of Okwe carries depth of emotion, a tired dignity and a sense of the burden of secrets. Critics all singled out his intensity and depth in this film, with good reason.

Kinky Boots (2005)

Kinky Boots (2006)

Chiwetel Ejiofor, in drag, singing, is a winning combination. In this feel-good British comedy inspired by a true story about unconventional sexualities in conventional life situations, Ejiofor’s character Lola is the queen of a drag club who rules the stage as if she were born there – but when chance finds her in Northampton to help design shoes for a drag performance, she must contend with gay-hating union men and opportunistic real estate developers. Ejiofor’s fantastic versatility was framed in the best possible light in what could have been a cookie-cutter, triumph-against-all-odds role. He does not act like a man pretending to be a woman, or a gay man, but embraces and embodies every inch the determined, fabulous and resourceful Lola, bringing passion and style to an otherwise rather blandly likeable cast of supporting characters.

Children of Men (2006)

Children of Men (2006)

In Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian vision of the year 2027, war, terrorism and climate disasters have left Britain an island of fascist authoritarian order. Refugees are kept in squalor at the gates, and no baby has been born to humanity in 18 years. Ejiofor plays Luke, the head of a rebel group that assists lead character Theo (Clive Owen) in taking their only hope – a pregnant refugee girl, Kee (Clare-Hope Ashitey) – to a humanitarian aid ship heading for safety. But Luke is not all he seems: his motives are complex, fuelled by his righteous anger at authority and his dangerous saviour complex. In a dystopian film where faceless enemies are aplenty, Ejiofor brings a flawed, dark but all too human antagonist to the scene. Nihilistic yet well-intentioned, dangerous yet desperate, Ejiofor’s versatility shone through in this acclaimed and audience-pleasing blockbuster.

Talk to Me (2007)

Talk to Me (2007)

It’s the 60s in Washington DC; the civil rights movement is in full swing, and soul and R&B are gaining ground. Dewey Hughes (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is the programme director of the local radio, who takes a chance on ex-con Petey Greene (Don Cheadle) to reach his African American audiences. Based on the true story of Greene’s legendary DJ and broadcast personality, Talk to Me combined humour and social commentary in its roles for Cheadle and Ejiofor. Confidently creating a character who is walking the thin line between staying true to himself and securing his meal ticket in a society still segregated in many ways, Ejiofor showed that a memorable and strong supporting role takes skill and range – not to mention his, by now, fourth accent, which he executed perfectly.

Othello (theatre, 2007)

Othello (theatre, 2007)

Director Michael Grandage’s revival at the Donmar Warehouse focused closely on Othello, unlike many previous adaptations that saw Iago take centre stage, making this a fantastic opportunity to witness Ejiofor’s acting quality. Descending from a man of majestic dignity – with just a touch of lovesick idealism and smug rhetorical flair – to one of deluded rage, due to the machinations of Ewan McGregor’s unnervingly charming Iago, Ejiofor’s Moor of Venice was captivating to watch. Though Ejiofor was young at the time for the middle-aged Othello of Shakespeare’s text, his weighty performance convinced as a confident man undone by impossible social, racial and sexual double standards. Winning him the prestigious 2008 Olivier award and placing him firmly among the elite Shakespeare actors of the theatre world, Othello proved the best from Ejiofor was yet to come.

Redbelt (2008)

Redbelt (2008)

In this action/drama written and directed by David Mamet, Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a martial-arts instructor who runs a studio in a rough part of town, trying to get by on teaching his passion, jiu jitsu. With hardly any customers, Mike is barely kept afloat thanks to a few students and his wife’s small retail business. Ejiofor gives us a character of genuine, believable idealism, who falls prey to a series of deceptions by a lawyer, a movie star, a talent manager and fight promoter. These con men and women all trap Mike into a cycle of betrayal, guilt and disappointment, leading up to a big televised fight sequence. The film itself received mixed reviews, but its highlight remains Ejiofor’s compelling portrayal of a character’s moral battle to stay true in a crooked world.

Endgame (2009)

Endgame (2009)

In a gripping thriller based on true events, Endgame sees leads William Hurt and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a behind-the-scenes story of the build-up to the abolition of apartheid in South Africa. Secret talks transpired for almost a decade between the South African government and the African National Congress (ANC), the political party spearheading the independence movement. Ejiofor plays ANC leader Thabo Mbeki in this dialogue-led docudrama; a far cry from his action-led characters in Redbelt and Secret in Their Eyes. He portrays Mbeki as a man making no concessions on his belief in equality and majority rule, but one who ultimately seeks reconciliation over conflict and works to overcome his own feelings of bitterness. Ejiofor’s nuanced acting is buoyed by a stellar supporting cast and an important story.

12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and imposed bondage from 1841-53, British director Steve McQueen’s Academy Award-winning picture took Ejiofor’s reputation global. This unflinching account of a slavery-era American south, and the dehumanising experience of everyday violent racism, had Ejiofor shine in the role of Northup – earning him a BAFTA and an Oscar nomination for best actor. In the film, he channels his character’s terror, his intelligence, literacy and musical skill – which he must hide from his brutal captors – and his dignity in the face of impossible cruelty. Ejiofor’s stage pedigree really comes through in this performance too. You can see in his facial expressions a man suppressing his reactions and very identity in order to survive his circumstances. An intense and studied interpretation that cemented Ejiofor’s talent for complex roles in any genre of film, this remains his standout performance to date.

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

Half of a Yellow Sun (2013)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel about the 1967-70 Biafran war in Nigeria had high expectations attached to it from its readers, and it didn’t disappoint. Biyi Bandele directs Thandie Newton as the privileged, London-educated Olanna, and Ejiofor as Odenigbo, an idealistic university professor from humble roots. Capturing the hope of the creation of a new state and the destruction of war, it is also a love story about a couple who work to overcome their differences against a backdrop of divisive politics. Ejiofor’s Odenigbo is every inch as charismatic as the book’s strong character, with a life-affirming sensuality in his scenes with Newton. His Nigerian accent completely natural and believable, Ejiofor slips into the role confidently and channels his struggling character’s combination of traditional masculinity, political idealism and human vulnerability.

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

A team of LA investigators – Ray (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Jess (Julia Roberts) and their supervisor Claire (Nicole Kidman) – are plunged into a nightmare when they find Jess’s teenage daughter murdered. Thirteen years later, Ray finally uncovers a new lead that he’s certain can permanently resolve the case and bring them closure. As this remake of the acclaimed Argentine film switches between 2002 and 2015, Ray pursues leads from events immediately post-9/11. While some of these leads turn out to be genuine, and some red herrings, Ray’s professional and personal lives grow increasingly intertwined. Brimming with a frustrated sense of justice, Ejiofor performs the part of a complex man who is menacing to those he perceives to be a threat, willing to push establishment rules to the limit, but capable of romantic yearning and single-minded loyalty.

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